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Troup County Juvenile Court starts Family Dependency Treatment Court

Contributed

There has been a surge recently, across the U.S., in the number of children entering the foster care system after years of a decline. In Georgia, the number of children in foster care has doubled over the last three years.  Substance abuse is a factor in more than half of the cases where a child is removed from a home. In Troup County, over the last 18 months, the percentage of removals related to parental substance abuse rose from 39 percent to 56 percent. In many other cases other reasons are assigned for the removal, but parental substance abuse is found to be a significant underlying cause of the removal.  These children enter foster care through no fault of their own, still love their parents despite their substance abuse issues, and want to return home as quickly as possible.

Determined to improve the outcomes and provide hope to these children, families and our community, Judge R. Michael Key and the Troup County Juvenile Court successfully sought funds through a state grant, to establish a Family Dependency Treatment Court (FDTC). Troup County parents who have lost custody of their children because of drug addiction will now have a new option to receive intensive treatment and reunite with their children more quickly.  And, importantly, experience shows, the reunification of the family is more sustainable over time when compared to the outcomes in regular dependency court.

The FDTC’s purpose is to protect children while healing families by affording parents the tools they need to become sober and maintain sobriety in order to provide a safe and stable home for their children. To accomplish this, a court based, multi-disciplinary team works together to conduct a comprehensive child and parent assessment and then provides evidenced-based services according to the identified individualized needs. The FDTC provides structure, accountability, strong case oversight, enhanced collaboration among service team members, and case management that connects families to the resources they need in a timely manner.

Without this collaboration of efforts, these systems are ill-equipped to individually handle the specialized issues surrounding parental substance abuse and addiction.

Participation in the program is voluntary. Those who choose to participate must sign a contract and are sanctioned for non-compliance with the treatment protocol and, for every sanction, there is also a positive treatment response. Participants must follow all treatment recommendations, attend trauma-informed individual and group counseling, provide random drug screens not less than twice weekly, attend court reviews every two weeks, and will receive unannounced visits from a community police officer.

The primary incentive for participation is the greater the likelihood of reunification with their children. Family reunification rates are approximately 20 to 40 percent higher for FDTC programs than to those in traditional dependency court.

Chief Justice Hugh P. Thompson noted the importance of accountability courts in his State of the Judiciary Address in 2014, in which he stated, “Our judges have taken up that challenge. They have stepped forward eagerly and embraced the opportunity to create and then preside in drug courts, mental health courts, veterans’ courts, family dependency treatment courts, juvenile drug courts and DUI courts. All over this state, judges have met and exceeded the challenge, putting people on a path to good citizenship, good lives, and safer communities for every one of us and for generations to come.”

Governor Deal, also in 2014, reiterated his support noting the efforts over the last three years “will allow non-violent offenders to break their addictions, reclaim their lives and keep taxpayers from spending $18,000 per inmate for each year they are in prison. These reforms will also increase the safety of our society.”

Also, in dependency cases, there are huge savings when children can be returned to their homes more quickly rather than lingering in foster care while their parents try to overcome their addition in less intensive and less successful way, with estimates ranging from $5,000 to $13,000 per family.

While the monetary savings are important, and having participants become productive members of society is beneficial to the communities in which they live, the real winners are the families who are reunited.